Building a refuge

Building a refuge
River Tungabhadra in Karnataka is home to all sorts of wildlife – otters, turtles, fishes and crocodiles. In particular, sand banks and islands on the riverbed are the main breeding grounds for such species. Recently, the State demarcated a 36-km stretch downstream of the Tungabhadra river, from Hole Mudlapura near TB Dam Reservoir to the bridge of Kampli, as an Otter Conservation Reserve.

Riverine friends
Indian smooth-coated otter (Lutrogale perspicillata) thrives in great numbers along the entire length of this river. Considered as a top carnivore of river ecosystems, smooth-coated otter can be found from the foothills of Himalayas to the tip of South Indian rivers and freshwater ecosystems. Called as neeru naayi or cheer naayi locally, these otters are widely despised by fishermen as they steal the fishes caught in nets. But today, the local population has learnt to tolerate these riverine mammals to some extent.

Thanks to their webbed feet and strong paws with razor-sharp claws, these otters are good swimmers. Apart from fishes, their diet also comprises frogs, turtles, certain crustaceans, earthworms and insects. They breed during winter and litter in burrows made under the bushes on the riverbanks.

Though their numbers are good in protected areas (PA), they face grave threats in unprotected riparian ecosystems. For example, the population of otters in Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, Nagarhole National Park, is good, whereas their population in the other rivers of the State are neglected or unreported. 

These riverine mammals are listed as vulnerable under threatened category by IUCN. Otters are hunted in great numbers by poachers for their skin. The skin would then be tanned and sold for producing jackets in far-eastern markets. But activists of Wildlife SOS organisation and SWaN, a local NGO, patrolled the riparian habitat and alerted the local fishermen to report such hunters and brought down the numbers of hunting instances.  

Apart from otters, you can find three distinct species of softshell turtles in this river — Leith’s softshell turtle (Nilssonia leithii), called as lagala locally, Indian narrow-headed softshell turtle (Chitra indica) and Indian softshell turtle (Lissemys punctata). Another species of turtle, the Indian Black Turtle or Indian Pond Terrapin (Melanochelys trijuga) also thrives here. These turtles are generally found in Indus and Sutlej rivers of Pakistan, Ganga, Godavari, Mahanadi rivers of India and some rivers of Nepal and Bangladesh.

These turtles prefer clear, shallow rivers with sandy bottoms, where they spend most of the time concealed under the sand, exposing the nose and eyes only. They feed on fishes, frogs and certain crustaceans and molluscs. Leith’s softshell turtle is widely hunted along with the narrow-headed ones by Bangladeshi poachers for its meat and carapace, which is used for making traditional Chinese medicines. Most of the turtle hunters are said to be from Burma and Bengali Camps near Sindhanur in Raichur district. In fact, turtles are a staple in their diet. According to oral history, during the reign of Vijayanagara rulers, soldiers killed many giant turtles for their meat and used the carapace, which is light and strong, as shields in war.

Leith’s softshell turtle is listed as vulnerable under threatened category of IUCN’s Red Data Book. A few decades ago, it was the most commonly-found turtle but due to illegal trade, siltation and drying up of rivers during summer, they are now facing extinction. Likewise, Indian narrow-headed softshell turtle is also listed as endangered under threatened category by IUCN Red Data Book.

Mighty muggers  
The Mugger crocodile or Indian Marsh Crocodile (Crocodylus palustris) is a freshwater crocodile, commonly seen in Indian rivers, freshwater lakes, ponds, swamps and marshes. They are generally seen basking on a rock surrounded by water in areas by the River Tungabhadra — Anegundi, Hampi, Kariyammanagadde and  Bukkasagara. They lay eggs on the sand banks and islands of the river. During monsoon, when the water bodies are recharged with freshwater, the young ones come out of the sand banks to start their own life. Many times, these crocodiles are killed by villagers for killing their goats and sheep.

These crocodiles are also sought for their skin, which is used for making bags and shoes. All these species face the threat of loss of habitat due to destructive human activities like sand mining, hunting and poaching. Some miscreants even go to the extent of using dynamites for killing fish, which takes a toll on other aquatic wildlife as well. 

The Tungabhadra Otter Conservation Reserve is planning several conservatory measures such as no hazardous industries are allowed within 100 metres from the boundary of high tide area. The government has outlined several rules to stop the destruction of the river and its ecosystem. For instance, releasing polluted water, industrial effluents, hazardous chemicals into the river is not allowed. Hunting and poaching of otters, turtles and crocodiles is strictly prevented by surveillance and intelligence gathering. There is also a proposal to restrict fishing of endangered species in the area.

Teams would patrol the river to check sand mining and other acts that could harm the river ecosystem. They also plan to prevent encroachment of river habitats in the area. At the same time, the guideline ensures that the present status of land holding remains the same and existing agricultural practices and plantation activities are not affected. Hopefully, these conservatory measures will herald a new and safe journey for the local wildlife.

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